Bizarre Bazaar

Saunas, massages help Swedish sailors hunt pirates

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Drops of sweat trickled down the faces of the pirate hunters on the Swedish warship. They conferred in low voices, finally reaching a consensus: Yes, throw another pitcher of water onto the sauna heater.

Pirate-hunting has come a long way since the Knights of Malta battled the Barbary Corsairs four centuries ago.

Floggings, weevils and scurvy are out. Saunas, fresh bread and massages are in - at least aboard the Swedish warship Carlskrona, the flagship of the European Union's force to hunt down Somali pirates, who have hijacked 23 ships this year.

Building an international alliance to fight the pirates means navies have to try to harmonize their cultures alongside their weapons and communications systems. Some of the adjustments are serious, like agreeing to common rules of engagement and having lawyers advise warships on how to gather evidence and treat captives.

A handbook produced by the Swedes and given to other European nations not only has such phrases in English and Somali as "No talking" and "Put your weapon down," but also includes "Calm down" and "We are here to help you" - for use when boarding teams search Somali fishing vessels or boatloads of refugees.

But the coalition-building has also led to some odd cultural exchanges. Chief among them has been getting foreign officers used to the Swedish habit of socializing with little or no clothing in the warship's sauna.

During off-duty hours, the sauna is at the heart of socializing on the ship. Spanish, German and Norwegian officers meet their Swedish colleagues there after long days in the Indian Ocean searching for pirates, responding to their attacks and planning escorts for ships.

Of course, in the waters off the sweltering Somali coast, sailors can work up a good sweat by simply doing nothing. Temperatures often hover around 100 degrees (37 degrees Celsius).

Taking a steam together is an essential way of getting to know someone in much of Scandinavia, said Mika Raunu, a sailor in the Finnish navy. It's in the same tradition of Scandinavian egalitarianism that sees officers sharing rooms with lower-ranking sailors.

It also has led to a few cultural misunderstandings.

Lt. Cmdr. Carl Sjostrand told of a Swedish captain who invited a U.S. admiral to meet his senior officers after a formal ship's dinner. The American was led down to the sauna in full dress uniform - only to end up shaking hands with a line of sweaty, smiling and naked Swedish sailors.

Like all facilities, the saunas are used by both men and women, and the Swedish military does not segregate living quarters or bathrooms.

Women make up 20 percent of the sailors onboard the Carlskrona, doing everything from intelligence work to machine gun drills and working in the helicopter squadron. Among the female crew is Susanne Bursvik, one of two nurses onboard who help sailors relax between watches or exercises by offering massages.

"If I can help people feel better, I feel I've done my job," she said. "All these people are so far from home."

Her two children thought it was "pretty cool" she was out searching for pirates, she said.

The sailors have many rituals aboard the Carlskrona to break up the monotonous days and months. Among them: the captain gets the honor of eating the first flying fish that lands on deck. There are also fraternity-like raids to steal the mascots of rival ships - the current captive is a toy beaver - as well as the tradition of dressing up as King Neptune to celebrate the crossing of the equator.

The Carlskrona was deployed a month ago, and will be part of the EU flotilla until November.

The galley crew does its best to overcome nostalgia for home-cooked meals by preparing salmon, beef or ostrich steaks, sometimes producing a surprise formal dinner in the middle of the night for the late watch.

Bakers make at least four different types of fresh bread every day, using syrups, nuts and whole grains. Cooks also prepare sweets for the crew - one day it was small chocolate balls covered in sprinkles, served on what is known as the "Seal Deck" because of the number of sailors sunbathing after lunch.

In the evenings, off-duty sailors can unwind with a movie. One of the choices was "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Sailor Christoffer Nilsson-Mineur was asked if he felt any affinity with Johnny Depp's eyeliner-sporting, swashbuckling hero.

"Not really," Nilsson-Mineur said thoughtfully. "I guess we're more like the cool English guy who hunts him."

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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